Analysis: School vouchers could cost tens of millions

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(Source: MGN Online) (Source: MGN Online)

The Legislature's independent budget office estimates that expanding a school voucher program to all Arizona schoolchildren over the next four years could cost more than $24 million, a number that could go much higher.

That's because more public school students are likely to take state cash for private schools and children who never went to public schools would qualify, according to the report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

[RELATED: Arizona Senate panel OKs school vouchers for all]

Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko, of Peoria, is pushing the proposal to expand what started several years ago as a small program that has since been revised to cover about 186,000 of 1.1 million public school students.

Lesko has repeatedly said in recent weeks that she expects taxpayers to save money overall, and implied that the general fund cost would be minimal.

Lesko said Wednesday she had not seen the report and decline comment.

A cap on the program that expires after 2019 limits current enrollment to about 5,500 students. That cap can grow each year by a similar number until the cap expires.

The vouchers, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, allow parents to take most of the state aid that would go to their local public school and use it for private or religious school tuition, home schooling costs or tutoring.

Backers argue the program gives parents choice in where to send their children. Opponents say it starves already-underfunded public schools that have to take every child that shows up while private schools can exclude more difficult or expensive students.

The report cautions that it is speculative and based on estimates of how many students will sign up for vouchers. But it noted that parents planning to send their children to private schools could sap even more cash than expected - up to $35 million by 2011 and much, much more in following years as private school parents embrace the program.

The current program began in 2011 just for disabled students, but has expanded to children attending failing schools, foster children and children of military members.

[RELATED: Ducey praises school choice advocates as voucher bill awaits]

Democrats generally oppose vouchers, and with some Republicans have fought off Lesko's effort to expand the program to all schoolchildren for the past two years. But the effort may have a better chance of passing this year.

Sen. Martin Quezada said he believes the cost estimates are likely conservative. He also noted an expansion a few years ago that added children in low-performing, generally low-income schools led to few takers because the parents can't afford extra tuition costs and can't provide regular transportation.

"Those people in the low income communities, it's not a choice for them, it's not a realistic choice," he said. "This is just going to further divide the haves and the have nots in our school system."

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